Spam traps and how to prevent them

Spam traps are email addresses used by blocklist organizations and mailbox providers to identify spammers and senders with poor email practices. Sending to one of these spam traps can be damaging to your sender health and reputation. While there are a few ways spam traps can be added to your list, they can easily be avoided with proper opt-in practices and good list hygiene.

What is a spam trap?

According to SpamHaus, spam traps are: 

"Email addresses that have not opted into any email. They are used by various reputation systems to highlight senders who add email addresses to their lists without obtaining prior permission. They are also very effective in identifying email marketers with poor permission and list management practices.

Major blocklist organizations use spam traps to identify spammers who are sending to email addresses that have never opted in. Mailbox providers also use spam traps to identify companies who are sending to addresses without consent or sending to very old data. If you send emails to spam traps owned by one of these organizations, your domain and/or our IP address may end up on a blocklist.

How do I identify a spam trap?

Spam traps are impossible to identify because they are kept secret. There is no way to identify one by looking at it. 

As SpamHaus says:

  • They are a component of reputation systems' secret sauce;
  • If the trap is provided, the trap is useless to its owner from that point forward;
  • It often happens in the event a trap address is provided to a sender that is listed, that only the trap address is suppressed - and no other work is done to solve the underlying data collection/maintenance issue.

How does a spam trap get on my list?

There are a few different ways a spam trap can get on your list:

  • By accident
    Someone might accidentally sign up for your list and misspell their email address. The misspelled address might happen to be a spam trap. This happens more often than you might think by nature of the sheer amount of sign-ups there are on the internet every day. That's why it's very important to verify new email addresses that enter your list with double opt-in.
  • Bots
    It is increasingly common for bots to subscription bomb your list. This means that they maliciously sign up thousands of email addresses to your lists through subscription forms. Some of these random email addresses they use may also happen to be spam traps. This can happen if you're using a form that is not protected by captcha or a double opt-in.
  • Old data
    Some spam traps are email accounts that shut down 5, 10, or even 15 years ago. This can happen when an email account owner stops returning bounces to tell senders that the address is undeliverable. The old, unused email address can then turned into a “recycled” spam trap. If you are caught sending it to a "recycled" spam trap, then it means you haven't cleaned your list in years or you recently purchased a list of very old data. Both will get you in deliverability trouble.
  • Non-opt-in data
    Spam traps can get on your list if it is purchased, scraped, or appended with contacts who have not opted in. This practice is against our Terms of Service and will tank your deliverability. Spam traps are circulated into purchased databases and posted on public webpages. Anyone who uses these non-permissioned email lists will likely have a list full of spam traps.

Do spam traps cause deliverability issues?

Spam traps are not a "cause" of deliverability issues and removing them will not make any issues go away. 

Instead, spam traps are symptomatic of a deeper problem with your practices. This can include how you collect data, the type of opt-in you use, list hygiene practices, and more.  

For example, a typo spam trap on your list could mean that you're not using a double opt-in on your form. A double opt-in can help you avoid a typo spam trap because it will verify if the email is valid.

How do I keep spam traps off my list?

  • Use double opt-in on your forms
    A double opt-in is a two-step process an individual must go through to be added to your list and receive your emails. The process is initiated when a contact submits a subscription form. Only real, valid contacts can complete this process. Spam traps cannot, which keeps them off your list. That's because spam traps cannot open messages or click links in messages. So even if a contact submits your subscription form with a typo that happens to be a spam trap, they cannot be added to your list. Instead, they will have an "unconfirmed" status in your account and you won't be able to send them emails.
  • Add Captcha to your forms
    Captcha is a security solution that will help prevent bots from subscription bombing your forms. Using captcha with a double opt-in can help protect your sending reputation.
  • Clean your list on a regular basis
    Cleaning your list regularly to remove unengaged contacts (contacts who do not open or click your emails) is a best practice. Not only can it boost your deliverability, but it can also remove any potential spam traps from your list. You can use ActiveCampaign's free engagement tagging automations to accomplish this. These two automations work together to add and remove engagement tags from your contacts based on when they engage with your emails.
  • Don't purchase, scrape, append, or trade lists
    This practice is prohibited by our Terms of Service and it means your list will be full of spam traps. This will cause a blocklist.

Scanning your list for addresses that look suspicious won't help. This is because spam traps look normal and are completely secret. There is nothing about the email address name that gives them away. Removing contacts who have unsubscribed, bounced, or marked as spam also won't help. Spam traps never bounce, unsubscribe, or mark emails as spam.   

Can list verification tools remove spam traps?

List verification tools cannot be used to remove spam traps. That's because spam traps are secret. Any spam trap that a list verification tool claims to remove is probably not a genuine spam trap. If the trap was easy to identify then it would be discarded by the organization monitoring it. They would discard it because it's of no use to them.

You should not try to remove only spam traps from your list. Instead, you should identify the root cause of how they got there and fix it.

I think I have spam traps on my list, what should I do? 

You will know you have spam traps on your list if:

  • You find yourself on a blocklist
  • ActiveCampaign compliance agents let you know that your sending caused a blocklist

This problem is easier to fix than you might think. To remove spam traps and prevent new ones from being added, you'll need to take all steps listed in "How do I keep spam traps off my list" section above and practice aggressive list cleaning. We recommend immediately removing all contacts who have not opened a message in the past 3-6 months. Our Engagement Management tool makes this easy. Removing unengaged contacts is a sure way to clean the spam traps off your list.

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